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Closing The Loop: Kelley Norman

Warren Miller

Kelley Norman and her husband Bob Gerard have taught English and theater at Baker County High School in Macclenny for 30 years. Kelley and Bob aren't just the best drama teachers in the area. They're the only drama teachers for miles around. Kelley was just 21 when she started teaching English at Baker, the high school she'd graduated from only a few years earlier. There was no theater program then.

"In the '60s, there was an annual school play. This year, we did "The Wizard of Oz"; a musical review of show tunes, "Broadway in Baker"; and an original play, "The Old-Time Gospel Jubilee," that we're trying to get published. Later this year, we'll collaborate with the jazz band for a blues program where our kids will be the singers, with a dance floor and desert bar in back."

Macclenny is better known for its hunting and fishing, and for country arts like quilting, rather than for theater. Building a theater program in a rural community took time and commitment.

"First of all, you have to be a recruiter. And it helped that when we started, I was 21, barely older than the students. But the community has really embraced this program. We have sponsors and supporters. When we started, I could have told the names of every person in the audience! I was either related to them or had known them for a long time. We might have had 50 people in the audience, and today, we have 300 people." 

Several of Kelley Norman's students have gone on to professional careers in theater, and one is a rising star in the art — "Britt Hancock, who's been in at least four traveling productions that we've been to in Florida. At the moment, he's the artistic director of the Cumberland Playhouse, a famous regional theater that's right outside of Nashville."

Students like Britt were inspired by going on the program's annual field trip to New York City, where they watch plays and talk to theater professionals about art and craft.

"I go to New York every year. I have a friend there, someone I acted with in college. He just finished a stint with The Phantom of the Opera, playing the phantom. But I go up there for four or five days, and I'm ready to come back here. 

When asked what she wants for her program in Macclenny, Kelley doesn't hesitate.

"Oh, that's easy — a public space with a fly system [for sets and wires for special effects], not just for us, but for the whole community. A space that's not part of the school cafeteria. A real theater."

Kelley Norman and Bob Gerard developed strong friendships with the first students who signed up for their program. Over the decades, the friendships — and their love of theater — have paid dividends.

"We're into our third generation — we're teaching grandkids of some of our students 30 years ago. Which is kind of amazing."

Warren Miller is a writer and financial executive who lives near St. Augustine, Florida.